The historical backgrounds and the paradox of oil industry in South Sudan


By Kor Chop Leek

January 21, 2019 (SSNA) — I wrote an article in November last year 2018, which I tilted “Oil Production and Environmental Pollution: a serious concern that needs to be addressed with urgency”. It was published on the 3rd and on the 4th December consecutively on the South Sudan News Agency and Nyamilepidia websites. In the article, I narrated how the oil extraction caused serious damage to humans, animals, and the environment as a result of its pollutions, how International humanitarian organizations such as Sign of Hope based in Germany advocate for immediate solution to the human tragedy caused due to violations of human rights by the oil operating companies in South Sudan.

I finally concluded by calling for the government to account the oil operating companies violating human rights, and how appropriate environmental protection be applied in accordance with the internationally applicable standard.  This second article will give more details of elaborations on the “historical background and the paradox of the oil industry in the country”. It is my belief that oil would have improved the lives of the South Sudanese economically, but the paradox is the opposite. It caused more sufferings to residents living near the oil fields.

Historically, Oil was first discovered in Southern Sudan in the early 1970s by an America oil giant, the Chevron in Western Upper Nile, in what is now Block 1, near Bentiu and developed the Muglad Basin where two huge oil fields reserves were found, Unity and Heglig, both in the South. In February 1984, Chevron suspended its operations when three of its expatriate workers were killed by the SPLM/SPLA, a Southern guerrilla movement at the time under Colonel John Garang which waged the war against the successive regimes of the mainly Arab denominated Islamic North under President Jaffar Mohumad Nimeri. It was the same period the excavation of Jonglei canal also halted at mile 160 (260 KMs). SPLA platoons made a similar attack on French Total based-camp workers at Canal, the company responsible for the digging of Jonglei canal, killing some of them.

The discovery of oil came at a time when Sudan experienced the outbreak of the second civil war with the South. During this period, according to some documentation, Jaffar Nimieri attempted to redraw the boundary of Upper Nile Province so that the oil fields discovered would be within the province of Northern Kordofan, north of the administrative boundary between the northern and the southern Sudan which would turn into an international border with South Sudan in the future. Other sources revealed that, it was at this period the plans for pipelines were drawn up. This giant infrastructure would head to Port Sudan on the Red Sea in the North.  This mean, the huge oil infrastructure would be built, and the exports would flow northward rout. This came true at present as border demarcation remained the contested issue. The relations of the two countries deteriorated shortly after South Sudan Independence. The major disputes on this are the disagreement on the oil transport fees through the current Sudan pipelines which led to oil short down in January 2012.

After the June bloodless coup of 1989 that brought Brigadier Bashir of National Islamic Front, the NIF, into power, President Bashir announced in June 1992 that, Concord International, a small company owned by a NIF Sudanese businessman bought Chevron concession in cheap price of $25 million compared to a nearly a billion dollars invested by Chevron. It is from this period onward the Islamist Regime began to create what is called cordon sanitaire, referring to an area completely devoid of civilian life. It is what later turned to be a strategy which violated the human rights of the local civilians around the oil fields.

In March 1997, Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, GNPOC, constructed the longest pipeline with 1540 KM extended from oil fields located in the South to a marine export terminal on the Red Sea. Multiple contracts were signed worth $1 billion dollars with Chinese, Malaysians, and Europeans suppliers.  In 1999, the National Congress Party, NCP, led government in Sudan exported the first crude oil of 600,000 barrels to the international market through a pipeline to Port Sudan, loaded in Shell Tankers. The oil industrial development elevated Sudan to be an international player at the eye of the international community as put by the Robert Collins, the former Director of the Operation Lifeline Sudan, OLS.  Sudan begins to improve its ill economy, acquired modern sophisticated weapons to strengthen its military to crush the rebellion in the south, improve its diplomatic ties with the outside world, encourage international investors to invest in private sectors in Sudan and to suppress the opposition within to keep its status queue.

In 2005, the comprehensive peace agreement was signed between the government of Sudan, GOS, and the SPLM/SPLA in Naivasha Kenya, bringing an end to the Africa longest civil war which claims 2 million lives and uprooted more than four million from their homes as IPDs and refugees. The 6 years old agreement grantee the self-determination for the people of Southern Sudan. It was exercised through a nation-wide internationally recognized referendum conducted in January 2011, in which 98% of the southern population overwhelmingly voted for secession.

South Sudan break away from former United Sudan and officially become Independence on 9 July 2011, ranking the 93rd country among the community of nations forming the United Nations. During Independent celebrations attended by various International dignitaries, President Bashir of Sudan was the first head of state to recognized South Sudan sovereignty and immediately calls for the viable co-existent of the two Sudans as peaceful sisterly countries. The independence of South Sudan breaks away with 75% of the Sudan oil. This percentage turned 98% to date as the only economic annual revenues for the new nation. After Independence, the oil operating companies operate under direct supervision of the Republic of South Sudan’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mining, MPM. It is this supervision that generates writing of this article for public consumption.

As I stated earlier, the explorations and the extraction of oil was halted by the war in the South in 1984. The resumption of oil explorations and extraction in the late 90s which its first export started in early 2000s to the world market under the NIF government before the peace deal in 2005. It is the beginning of what becomes the man-made pollution in Southern Sudan. The pollution has jeopardized the lives of more than 600,000 people in Upper Nile (see DW & USAID websites in Nov.2018). The degree of environmental damage being experienced in Tharjath, Unity, and Paloch in Upper Nile at the present, is beyond description. The author wonders whether the oil industry in the country a curse or a blessing is. Oil operating companies granted concessions object to apply the best international standard practices which are the solely driven procedure of operation regarding respect of human rights and the environmental protection for the civil populations to avoid such human catastrophe.

Reflecting on this humanitarian concern, I have a conclusion that, NCP government objective was to extract oil to finance its economy and to strengthen its military without considering the damage caused or not even thought of the indemnification of the residents displaced by the oil activities. Khartoum used oil explorations at the time as a warfare cleansing strategy weapon indoctrinated in radical Islam to displace local populations around oil fields in order to discover more wells to increase the oil production.

The paradox is, thousands of civilians were uprooted from their homes through arm attacks, torture, killings, and other forms of human rights violations. Such displacements are believed to be funded by the oil consortium having received grants of concessions from the regime. The principles and regulations governing the extraction of oil, safety, and environmental protection applicable in most oil producing countries are non-applicable in South Sudan oil wells. I described this as an oil war which Khartoum prepared itself to wage against innocent civilians in the South who paid the expensive price when the discovery of oil would have improved their lives directly. Instead, their rights violated and denied services. This is proven by the construction of a pipeline from the oil fields to Port Sudan and Jielly Refinery, built in the North of Khartoum which supposed to be built in the South oil fields. The intention is to deny such benefits to the local communities by not improving their socioeconomic development. The pollution becomes irreversible today.

After Independence, South Sudan’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mining is constitutionally mandated to monitor and regulate the operations of the oil industry in the country. Petroleum Act was adopted in 2012. One biggest challenge of the ministry over the years is how to address the human tragedy caused by oil pollution in Tharjaith, Unity, and Paloch. Several reports from local communities, government officials, and from international organizations accused oil operating companies of SPOC, GPOC, and DPOC of not protecting the environment and the people, resulting into loss of essential livestock and the people. In a report tabled in the National Assembly in September 2013 by the Committee for Land, Agriculture, Natural Resources and the Environment explained that there is a high risk of a large number of miscarriages, of premature births, and of malformed children in the regions affected by oil production. The Petroleum Act of 2012 seems to be toothless in directing the oil operations companies to adhere to health, Safety, and the environment management.

It is this lack of adherence that jeopardized the health of the people, animals, and the environment. Birth malformations, the occurrence of the new diseases, poisoning of drinking water by oil chemicals keep rising. In one incident reported in Paloch of Melut County in Upper Nile, a mother gave birth to a child lacking eyes, nose, and genitals. Scientifically, this is a result of DNA alteration caused by oil chemicals which poisoned the soil. When humans consumed the food produced from the contaminated soil, this alters DNA amino acids sequence of the soil, plants, and in humans thus caused malformations. Communities inhabited or dwelled near oil fields vicinities as well as oil workers are the prime victims to such human health risk. In addition to that, infertility and kidney failures have been experienced as reported by the health facilities in those locations.

Such serious concerned are not being captured nor being brought to public light. The author believed that the oil operating companies are aware of such concerns. They are aware of the damage caused by the oil activities, they know that oil explorations displaced civilians’ day after day.  They know that people lack clean drinking water at their displaced places. They are fully aware that, the oil spills or the produced water or drilled fluids or oil chemicals poorly disposed on the shallow pits not lined with the plastic sheets nor even fenced, caused unspeakable environmental pollution to the ambient environment, animals and the people. The companies understand that South Sudan government lacks the institutional capacity to investigate or to accounts on such violations. The people being affected are ignorance to speak or claims their rights being violated. Other negative contributing factors are the lack of trained manpower who are nationals in various scientific fields and the current conflict. It is this understanding that the oil companies in the country exploited, do not adhere or live up to their commitment to protecting the environment.

In narrow down to my conclusion, it is the right time for the government of South Sudan to bring the tragedy to its attention. I call upon the country’s Ministries of Petroleum and that of Environment to address the environmental pollution engulfing the region and direct the oil companies in the country to adhere to rules and regulations governing oil explorations, extractions, and drilling. Seeking for short term and long solutions are imperative demand. The priority for immediate solutions can be put on the followings (1). Provide clean drinking water to the people affected by the oil activities, and this fall under the responsibility of the oil companies (2) Form a committee of scientific experts to assess the level of damage in the oil fields, how produced water or oil wastes (chemicals) are being disposed of. (3) Take multiple samples from people such as hair samples, soil, plants, animals, and water samples to investigate in order to assess and detect the level of contamination caused. (4) Sensitize and aware of the community of the danger of oil pollution. (5) The last but not the last, the oil companies must do bioremediation on the contaminated environment and the old oil wells. The author believes that if such formal steps are wholly employed, it shall change the paradox of oil industry in the country and it shall minimize the pollution for the current and the future generations of South Sudan.

The author is a concern South Sudanese. He is pursuing a Master’s in Humanitarian and Conflict Studies. He is reachable through: [email protected]

Biography of the Sources:

  1. Stieglizt and Pamperrien. 2016. Oil, Power and Sign of Hope.
  2. Burr and Collins. 2010. Sudan in Turmiol: Hassan al-Turabi and the Islamic State.
  3. History-of-oil-and_… {Internet} “History of Oil and Gas Industry in Sudan”.
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